torical eras in which they were first formed. The objective is to identify the changing role the government has played in these different historical periods, discuss the changing political and technological environment in which federal organizations have acted, and draw attention to the multiplicity, diversity, and flexibility of public-sector programs that have stimulated and underwritten the continuing steam of U.S. research in computing and communications since World War II. In fulfilling this charge, the chapter reviews a number of prominent federal research programs that exerted profound influence on the evolving computing industry. These programs are illustrative of the effects of federal funding on the industry at different times. Other programs, too numerous to describe in this chapter, undoubtedly played key roles in the history of the computing industry but are not considered here.

1945-1960: Era of Government Computers

In late 1945, just a few weeks after atomic bombs ended World War II and thrust the world into the nuclear age, digital electronic computers began to whir. The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), built at the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the Army Ballistic Research Laboratory, was America's first such machine. The following 15 years saw electronic computing grow from a laboratory technology into a routine, useful one. Computing hardware moved from the ungainly and delicate world of vacuum tubes and paper tape to the reliable and efficient world of transistors and magnetic storage. The 1950s saw the development of key technical underpinnings for widespread computing: cheap and reliable transistors available in large quantities, rotating magnetic drum and disk storage, magnetic core memory, and beginning work in semiconductor packaging and miniaturization, particularly for missiles. In telecommunications, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) introduced nationwide dialing and the first electronic switching systems at the end of the decade. A fledgling commercial computer industry emerged, led by International Business Machines (IBM) (which built its electronic computer capability internally) and Remington Rand (later Sperry Rand), which purchased Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1950 and Engineering Research Associates in 1952. Other important participants included Bendix, Burroughs, General Electric (GE), Honeywell, Philco, Raytheon, and Radio Communications Authority (RCA).

In computing, the technical cutting edge, however, was usually pushed forward in government facilities, at government-funded research centers, or at private contractors doing government work. Government funding accounted for roughly three-quarters of the total computer field.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement